You like me! You really, really like me! Or, why Sondheim needs to suck it up


Three things you need to know before diving in:

Thing one: Musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown wrote this blog post that explains a lesson he learned at age 23 when he unwisely, we’re led to believe, gave his candid opinion about Stephen Sondheim’s latest work (which most assume is Passion, given the details JRB provides) to Sondheim over an awkward post-show dinner. In it, it includes this recount of the words Sondheim gave to JRB over the phone the next day:

Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, to make it work, to make it live; either they did their job or they didn’t. But that is not your problem.

If you come to my show and you see me afterwards, say only this: “I loved it.” It doesn’t matter if that’s what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care enough about me and the work I do to tell me that you loved it, not “in spite of its flaws”, not “even though everyone else seems to have a problem with it,” but simply, plainly, “I loved it.” If you can’t say that, don’t come backstage, don’t find me in the lobby, don’t lean over the pit to see me. Just go home, and either write me a nice email or don’t. Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the Internet.

Maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe someday down the line, I’ll be ready to hear what you have to say, but that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you; that is the most vulnerable moment in any artist’s life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought, what you actually, honestly, totally believed, then you must tell me, “I loved it.” That moment must be respected.

Thing two: This response blog post which questions the validity of Sondheim’s comments and wonders if it’s, in fact, satire. After all, we can’t all get gold stars for our work. Candid, critical feedback is what helps challenge, and thereby improve, art. Or such is one of the core arguments in this piece, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Thing three: Sondheim’s letter to director Diane Paulus that blasts the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess — a show he hadn’t even seen yet.

Now, here’s my 2¢, for what it’s worth:

Frankly, I have a hard time thinking Sondheim *actually* said this vs. how much of it was colored by JRB, unintentionally or otherwise. And if Sondheim did, in fact, dole out this ego-protecting advice, I wonder if he still stands by these words, or if they’re something he said in the heat of the moment. From what I gather, Passion was a very personal piece, written during a seminal moment in his life (he was in love), coupled by a particularly challenging path to its creation. So maybe he was especially vulnerable feeling? He needed kind words of love and encouragement. We all do, every now and then. I get it, Sondheim. I do.

But, if he feels it’s ok to send his critique of a show he hasn’t even seen yet to The New York Times, well…I think those days of guarding your opinion and leaving that work to the creators are firmly behind him. Or, maybe he feels his advice to JRB simply doesn’t apply to himself — which I don’t disagree with. Sondheim knows his shit. Hell, I’d love Sondheim to critique this white paper I’m writing for work.

I leave you with this. For my friend Katy’s weekly theatre podcast, Off Book, I wrote the following “Got a Minute” segment (essentially, a minute-long radio play) back in May, which I feel adds all I really care to say about this nonsense (you can also listen to it here, starting at 13:20).

AN ACTOR’S EGO

(sound of people chattering in the background, party noise, etc.)

David: Hey, Mark! Wow, you came! Thanks for coming to my show, man! Where’s Jill?

Mark: Hey, David! Jill’s in the ladies room.

David: Oh, ok. So … what did you think?

Mark:Oh, wow. Well…(hesitant)…you…really looked like you were having a great time up there!

David: Oh. Ok. I know that trick.

Mark: What?

David: You didn’t like it.

Mark: Oh, now. I’m glad you are getting to do what you’ve always wanted to do. I’m very proud of you. Both of us are.

David: But…

Mark: But?

David. Yes, But. There’s a but in there. Just tell me what you thought, Mark.

Mark: Ok.

David: Ok?

Mark: Ok. So. yeah. I hated it. I mean, the whole dream segment where the family turned into robots and began reciting the Koran — I got lost and never found my way back.

David: Ok, ok…so the show isn’t the best, I’ll give you that. But what did you think of me? Of ME???

Mark: Sure. To be frank, I had a hard time understanding some of your choices. They seemed arbitrary. And you faced upstage a lot, making you hard to hear. I also wanted more during your big emotional breakdown — it came off as insincere. And what was with that accent? Was it British or Irish or Polish? And, boy, you sure do sweat a lot onstage! Gross. I hope you drink lots of fluids before you go on, but not so much that you risk peeing your pants because that would be…

David (interrupting): ….Oh my god. You HATED ME! I’M A HORRIBLE ACTOR! I’M QUITTING TOMORROW! JOINING THE PEACE CORPS! FUCK!

Mark: David, calm down!

David: CALM? YOU JUST SABOTAGED MY CAREER! I’M NOTHING! I MIGHT AS WELL JUST DYE MY HAIR, CHANGE MY NAME, SLIT MY WRISTS AND DELETE MY FACEBOOK PROFILE! GAH!

Jill: What’s going on here??!

Mark: Oh, hey Jill. I just told David what we thought of his work in the show.

Jill: Oh, David, you were just wonderful. We had a lovely time.

David: See? SHE knows how to give criticism.

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